History isn't just written on the pages of books and newspapers; it's also watched through the mind's eye. Ohio University alumni remember days in the University's past by way of dreams fulfilled, fears realized, friendships established and lessons learned. Ohio Today asked alumni from various eras to share recollections of their years as students. Read one account of college experiences, lifelong friendships, memories of war and civil unrest, and passages into adulthood.
"... a groundswell of student activism ..."
By Charles Grant, AB ’71
Most of us in the Ohio University graduating class of 1971 entered high school against the backdrop of the 1963 murder of the president of the United States. In the year prior to this shattering event, we became aware of the realistic possibility of our universal nuclear annihilation during the Bay of Pigs missile crisis in Cuba.
By its sophomore year of 1968, this class had been confronted with the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy; witnessed the emergence of race as one of the defining issues in American culture; and looked on as riots raged throughout the country and the nation’s cities burned.
Superimposed upon and overarching all of these events was the specter of teenagers drafted by the military from cities, towns and campuses across the land to join the bloody conflict in Vietnam. Images of dead American soldiers in body bags were nightly television fare for years.
These events brought with them an unexpectedly stunning development, however: the concentration of the college student upon the forces that shaped our country’s policies and institutions. The focus of this concentration quickly evolved into anti-establishment sentiment throughout the nation. The class of 1971 was no exception.
The response was a groundswell of student activism, from nonviolent rallies, sit-ins and protests to sometimes-violent demonstrations and overt student rebellion. This activism brought about a new consciousness that galvanized significant segments of the Ohio University student population.
Racial tensions coursing through the nation were felt on campus as well, although less than 1 percent of the University’s 18,000 students were African-American. Increasingly aware of the scarcity of university services made available to and for them, African-American and supportive Caucasian students and faculty demanded, protested, rallied and demonstrated against the social isolation of minorities on campus. These efforts culminated in the active recruitment of African-American faculty members and creation in 1969 of the Black Studies Institute, one of the first programs of its kind in the nation - now known as the Department of African American Studies.
This development was due in major part to the enlightened and progressive leadership of University President Vernon Alden and Honors College Director and English Professor Edgar Whan, whose collaborative efforts heralded the arrival of a more inclusive attitude toward the minority community and a heightened sensitivity to issues of diversity.
Less than seven months after the establishment of the Black Studies Institute, however, four students would be shot dead and nine wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Similar, but lesser reported, killings took place on African-American college campuses in 1968 and 1970, respectively, at South Carolina State College, where three were killed and 27 wounded, and Jackson State University, where two were killed and 12 wounded.
College campuses across the nation exploded, literally and figuratively. Hundreds of Ohio University students fought pitched battles with local police on the College, East and West greens, and up and down Jeff Hill, ultimately leading to the closure of the University after more than a week of riotous protests - making it one of the last of the many university systems in the state to shut down.
Ohio University by 1971 had graduated a class of politically active critical thinkers who eventually would ascend to leadership roles in a society they had forever changed. The participation of this class of students in the national debate taking place in society at large led, in incremental stages, to the abolition of the military draft; the end of the Vietnam War; sweeping new policies to control excesses in governmental authority; and ultimately, the resignation of a president of the United States.
Notwithstanding the tumultuous nature of the times in which we attended college, the class of 1971 still managed somehow to enjoy the annual flooding of the Hocking River and the water sports it inspired at Nelson Commons and on the West Green; fine dining at the BBF (Burger Boy Food-O-Rama); the excellence of our University sports teams; leisurely good times at Baker Center; the unique experiences offered by the many Greek organizations on campus; and exposure to the richly diverse, provocative and oftentimes controversial ideas and political figures to which the University courageously introduced us. The best times of my life occurred at Ohio University, and my most lasting friendships were made there.
Despite the turmoil and frustrations of administrators, faculty and students during those times, the process was and is the essential nature of education: to expose, enlighten, debate and engage our charges - and to encourage them to apply theory to practice. Though the educational experience of the class of 1971 occurred during one of the most dangerous, stimulating, politically charged, socially experimental and confrontational times in the history of college education, the intellectual leadership of a nation demonstrated the courage of its convictions.
As the Ohio University family approaches its 200th year of existence, if there is any advice I would offer the graduating class of 2004, it is this: Live your college experience to the fullest; have as much fun as you possibly can; think critically; take life seriously; participate in your world.
Charles “Joey” Grant, an attorney with Grant & Lebowitz LLC in Philadelphia, is chairman of the Philadelphia Prison System board and a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy. His specializes in labor and employment litigation. He has a daughter, Erin Nicole, who plans to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh this spring and pursue graduate studies.